I’m A Son of Charleston

   
I was hurt, like millions around the country, by the senseless,  brutal and tragic killings this week of 9 church members attending Bible Study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a 21 year old white male bent on creating a race war. For many it opened centuries-old racial wounds for others it poured salt in fresh wounds still simmering from many of the police brutality incidents around the country with racial undertones. 

The setting couldn’t have been more symbolic for the “original sin” of racism this country continues to grapple with. Afterall the first guns of the Civil War were fired in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. More specifically to Charleston, a city which served as one of the largest ports for the slave trade in the U.S. Also was the only major city to have a majority black population. This fact would not be lost on one Denmark Vecey, a freed slave from Haiti who launched a failed slave revolt in 1822. Before he led this revolt he was among the founders of a church in 1818 which later became Emanuel AME church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. After the revolt the church was burned to the ground in retaliation by white supremacists. While the church was rebuilt and members continued to meet, often in secret. It wasn’t until 1865, the conclusion of the Civil War that they would meet publicly and freely at Emanuel. None of this was lost on the killer who had researched the history and chose the church precisely because of its significance.

This tragedy also couldn’t be more symbolic given the fact that South Carolina is the state in which the Confederate Flag is most prolific even currently flying at full staff on the State Capitol grounds in Columbia, SC. I witnessed it personally during a visit to the city to speak to a group of black pastors. While I knew it was there prior to my trip, having been moved from the top of the dome in a 1994 “compromise”, the instant shock and vitriol it produced in my spirit was palpable. My African American host noticing my discomfort asked me if I was alright. I simply pointed at the flag and said, “You do see that right?” To which he replied, “oh you get used to it.” That’s part of the problem as to why it’s still flying today.

I’ve never been to Charleston, but I’m a son of the city nonetheless. Charleston is to me what Jamestown, VA is to most African Americans. Ground Zero.  My original African ancestors first stepped foot in this country in Charleston, as slaves. On this Father’s Day I honor those two brothers who would survive to produce large portions of my family. I admit I passed on an opportunity to visit Charleston and Myrtle Beach with my mother years ago. It seemed a bitter place to me given that history. When I finally did visit Myrtle Beach years later and ventured into a beach shop for towels I was unpleasantly greeted with Confederate flag beach towels, bikinis, swimming trunks, mugs beer can holders etc. I promptly left the store, venturing into a few more and repeating the same outcomes. I haven’t been back since.

Charleston has changed things for me. Primarily because of the powerful and moving reactions of the victims’ families and the larger Charleston community black, white, Hispanic or otherwise.  One of the victims family members had the following to say to the killer in court:

You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her again, But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.” – the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance. 

People around the country have been amazed by the forgiveness factor present in the families of the victims. The killer had hoped that his actions, like those taken agaisnt the church in the past would surprise their actions and faith. He had hoped that it would spark a race war. He was wrong. What it has sparked is unity within the city and discussion around the country and the world on the ills of racism. Seven year old Charleston resident Madeleine Schimming drew the most powerful depiction of the positive outcomes from Emanuel(above) with the victims receiving their heavenly reward while the larger diverse community stands in front of the church locked in arms of love. I hope this event ushers in greater racial reconciliation, understanding and finally a removal of the confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds.

What occurred  at the first service at Emanuel AME since the shootings this morning was nothing short of miraculous. People of all races and backgrounds, although most were white stood outside at the makeshift memorial listening to the service tears in their eyes. Church bells from across “The Holy City” rang out in part solidarity, part defiance and full unity. Inside the church members shed tears to be certain. However they also cried out in praise knowing that weeping may endure for a night joy truly does come in the morning. I wish I had been there. I will be there one day soon.

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A Strong Finish at Home

     
Last week I enjoyed a wonderful experience celebrating survivors and remembering those lost to breast cancer at the Susan Komen Race for the Cure in Washington, DC. Saturday I completed the twofer by running the KomenDetroit race. Where The DC event was more of a communal celebration Detroit was more commemorative and personal. Returning to not only the city of my birth but also my mother’s, made the entire trip much more poignant. Additionally while I didn’t realize it when I decided to run the races earlier this year, I was repeating the steps we took at her passing, funeral services on back to back Saturdays, first in DC, then in Detroit. 

For that and many other reasons, it didn’t matter that I didn’t fly into town until 1am and woke up at 6am. It didn’t matter that it was raining right before the race( it cleared up). All that mattered was being a part of the event at home. Detroit is second nature to me but I’ve never run there before. This was a first. From the time I landed to the time I crossed the finish line the experience was intensely familiar and personal. The event in general, one of the largest races in the country, felt uniquely like the Michigan and like Detroit. Situated along the picturesque Detroit River and International Riverfront the views were peaceful. The pre race area full of buses from all over the state, TV news crews, and tents from radio stations to the Detroit Pistons it had the feel of a hometown community event. 
  

With a diverse crowd of all backgrounds and teams comprised of church members, corporate sponsors and families supporting loved ones the festive event kicked off to the sound of a rock band and was followed almost every quarter mile by high school bands, jazz bands and supporters along the way. It didn’t matter that my playlist didn’t work on my new iPhone, the adrenaline of the environment and the memories of my mother kept me going. 

  

While the last mile was a challenge that seemed like it would never end, I was proud to finish with my best time of the year and towards the top quarter of the male finishers.  An added bonus and incentive was finishing along the riverfront near a location where years ago I had purchased a commemorative brick in my mother’s memory. The joy of finishing the race and then going to stand next to her brick in celebration of her life and completion of the race at home, was immeasurable. I’d like to say I spent my couple of hours at the race interacting with everyone and making new friends, and I probably will next time, but this year it was a personal and focused experience that was equal parts tribute, triumph and thanksgiving. Thanks Mom.

  
  

In Memory of a Champion

  

Today, on Mother’s Day weekend, thousands of Breast Cancer Survivors, their supporter, family and friends as well as those who have been impacted by this terrible disease ran, walked, danced and celebrated in support of a cure in Washington, DC. I am a relative newcomer to this annual event in the city in which I live. I am however, all too familiar with a disease that has taken the lives of far too many, too soon. I’m only in my second year of an event that continues to grow in its size and impact. Nearly 17 years ago I lost my mother to breast cancer. It would take me almost that entire time to actively engage in the cause, not for a lack of support, but rather preparation for the range of emotions the reflections of the day inevitably bring both for the race and for Mother’s Day.

The role and importance of mothers on their children and in our culture is well documented and often crucial to a child’s development with a lifetime of benefits for those fortunate enough to have positive maternal influences. I was blessed to have a stellar mother who demonstrated daily the virtues of faith, love, hope, patience, kindness, discipline and maybe most of all care and compassion for others. Her loss, seemingly like yesterday, left a void as it often does, never to be refilled. This made the initial Mother’s Days after her death a day to avoid like the plague, which was extremely difficult to do not only on a market driven Hallmark Holdiay, but also because it meant facing the conundrum of attending church on Mother’s Day. Attend and I’m instantly reminded of her absence in a place where she raised me amidst the tributes and brunches. Avoid and I actually do the very thing she fought me tooth and nail not to do as a kid. That decision process only took a couple of years. I honor her memory every Sunday now and have for years.

The Race for the Cure literally was a journey, that began spur of the moment last year and took on serious focus this year with training, new running shoes and all. This is big.  Anyone who really knows, knows I have not been a runner. The idea of just lacing up shoes and running miles down the road ranked about as high on my to do list as a root canal. Last year however in running the race on a mere 3 days of training, call it bed to 5k, non stop in a blistering 45 minutes I had an epiphany. Running, grueling as it might be, was the perfect way to pay tribute to the life of sacrifice, strength and even the suffering she experienced. No matter how dark the challenge, she never gave up on her family on others on herself. The least I can do is run in her honor, support and raise resources for the cure. 

This year I trained and focused. Training that took me around DC to across the Brooklyn Bridge. This year was a struggle, not of exhaustion but of pushing limits. I met my goal. I finished with a personal best shaving last years 15 min/mile pace to 9:30min/mile often fueled by memories of sacrifices she made on my behalf.  Today however was about far more than me or my mother. It was about those thousands of people who were also running in celebration or in memory of their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and friends who have found a place, even if just once a year to express joy and/or sorrow. I get it now. 

A week from today I will return to the city of my birth and the city of my mother’s birth to run in that race. I can only imagine that in Detroit, I will “get it” even more clearly. I look forward to the celebration next week, next year and every year I’m blessed to walk this earth.  That ability after all, I owe to my mother. 

Happy Mother’s Day Everyone.

The Fire This Time

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“Guess they are burning B’more down” – The Wire

Yesterday as the nation and world watched, peaceful protests earlier in the day gave way to violent riots ushering in chaos and destruction, literally in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police. On CNN’s coverage, Wolf Blitzer continuously stated that it was “hard to believe this was happening in a major American city like Baltimore.” Really? Is it? Was it so hard to see this coming from beyond 695 much less inside the city where rumors and Twitter posts warned of such violence? Haven’t we all seen what happened in Ferguson and around the country? Didn’t we see what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, Detroit in 1967, or Chicago and Washington, DC, in 1968 and other cities such as Newark and Camden. Sadly history does repeat itself, if even on a smaller scale, compared to the riot that occurred in Baltimore in April 1968.

This is not shocking or surprising or unexpected. This was inevitable. This also isn’t simply about the death of Freddie Gray. The anger and frustration among many of the youth and residents is based on not one but a collective series of events and realities related to everything from police brutality to economic depression to simple opportunism and lawless behavior. A mathematician analyzing would see a clear pattern. This isn’t a Baltimore problem. That’s simply where the issues manifested themselves this time. in Detroit in 1967, a long history of tensions between police and residents led to a riot/rebellion that left 43 people dead and over $40 million in property damages.

Anyone who witnessed the riots over the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent damage can see a thread here. There is an undeniable, invincible, core passion within the human spirit for dignity and respect.  When this is continuously suppressed it inevitably rises to the top despite intentional unintended efforts to subdue it. Famed writer James Baldwin expressed this best in 1960 before ALL of these riots occurred:

One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg   and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled and the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like [humans].

The anger on display for many yesterday both peacefully and even violently, stems from years of frustration of feelings of racism, and unfair treatment. Indeed this morning analysis is running rampant on the news shows attempting to determine how and why all of this happened and who is to blame. We have seen this movie before. Weeks will pass, commissions will be appointed, discussions will be had and sadly unless more substantive changes occur within these communities, another similar event will ignite.

How do we break this cycle? The problems and causes are myriad but there are some solutions. Certainly review and reform regarding police practices are in order. Something keeps occurring in standard arrests that ends in tragedy, even when many victims are unarmed. Much deeper issues in the community must be addressed particularly around economic opportunity. So many of the youth who were involved in one way or another in Baltimore yesterday were able to mobilize and plan through the use of technology and their smartphones, but the same use more than likely don’t have access to desktop computers at home or adequate STEM education in school.

At a time when Silicon Valley and other tech firms in Baltimore and around the country have 5% black employees, will completely miss the opportunity to be prepared and qualified for such positions. Investment is needed from public and private sources, corporations, foundations and government in programs in training and empowerment around STEM education and training in tech so that this generation of youth can become entrepreneurs, producers and innovators and not merely consumers.

Public and private support is necessary to support a more purpose-driven grid of social services from mentorship, life skills training, and other key needs from faith-based and community organizations, fraternities, sororities and other social organizations.

Much will be said in the coming days about what happened in Baltimore this week. Let it not be said though that this unrest was simply about the death of Freddie Gray. Let it not be said that this couldn’t be anticipated. Someday soon, let it also not be said that this occurred yet again in another city.

Selma: A(nother) Defining Moment

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The Congressional Delegation with Rep. John Lewis(front center) Author (top center-blue)

“So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

I had the pleasure of catching an early screening of the movie Selma last night and while I couldn’t help but to draw parallels between that time and the current social issues and tensions around justice today. When I was younger the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement fascinated me, even though they occurred before I was born. I found myself amazed by the courage and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and so many other leaders like John Lewis. So to see a movie featuring both leaders as well as Andrew Young was a treat.

The movie Selma offers a rare, poignant and often painful (for many reasons) look into the stress and tensions of fighting and leading the movement against both external and internal pressures. Depicting a much more vulnerable King than we have seen previously, the film delves into conflicts within the movement, within the King household and within the Federal and state governments. It successfully placed me back in that time through great acting and powerful and stirring cinematography.

This however, wasn’t too far of a leap in imagination as back in 2000, I had the honor of being part of the Faith in Politics Institute’s Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led each year by Congressman John Lewis from Washington, DC to Selma. The tour which snaked through Alabama from the former powder kegs of Birmingham, to Montgomery and then on to Selma, comprised of members and congress and their staff and was equal parts historical journey and tearful bonding and remembrance.

As it was the 35th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, which saw Congressman Lewis almost lose his life, then-President Bill Clinton gave remarks and was joined by, Coretta Scott King, Ethel Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond and many other dignitaries participated in the commemoration. One additional special individual marked an awe-inspiring moment in the midst of many special moments.

mother@casketWhile aboard our bus on the way to Birmingham, we were treated to the award-winning Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. This particularly episode explained the tragedy of the murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till, who was abducted, brutally beaten and later found in a swamp, for whistling at a white woman. His mother, became nationally known when she insisted on an open casket during the funeral, revealing gruesome photos that went “viral” around the world. As the episode concluded, with many of the riders in tears, a short, mature women mustered the strength to stand, take the bus microphone and say, “Good afternoon, I’m Mamie Till.” There were gasps amongst palpable silence before she went on to explain and take questions as to why she made the decisions she did and the pain she felt when the men charged with Emmett’s death were all acquitted.

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The pilgrimage included a luncheon and key note speech by Coretta Scott King before the group made its way to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery and around the corner to the state capitol where King stands at the conclusion of the movie Selma in triumphant and determined celebration of the march from Selma. I had wondered what it would have been like to travel through the south as the Freedom Riders once did or Mrs. King herself knowing there were people protesting their positions. In a stunning twist of irony, I caught a real life glimpse of that. Scheduled just hours before the group’s visit to the capitol steps, were Jefferson Davis once took the oath of office for the Confederacy, 2,500 Confederate sympathizers rallied at the League of the South’s Southern Independence Day, in full antebellum attire, many in scarlet and grey Civil War uniforms carrying hundreds of full-size confederate flags. With rebel yells and chants of “Independent South”! they sought a return of the confederate flag to the top of the capitol dome.

IMG_20141223_164603_editWhile police barricades were erected and police present in case these two worlds collided again, perhaps a kind providence, delayed the motorcade at an earlier stop and spared many of the civil rights dignitaries from a literal and unwelcome re-enactment of scenes from the movement. A few stragglers remained when our buses pulled into the area, waving confederate flags, aware of the nature of the group but unaware of the presence of Mrs King. In that moment, I wondered what it must of felt like for her, some 35 years later to still be confronted with those images and sentiments.

IMG_20141223_173105_editIn a way, I received my answer to that question as I watched Selma and marveled at the marches to protest injustice that were portrayed and then reflected on the current marches taking place around the country to protest unwarranted killings, that could have been prevented. That answer? It was one of despair, anger, resolve and commitment and hope.

A Moment We Can’t Miss

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In the wake, both figuratively and literally of a stream of events that have demonstrated a very disturbing view of the intersection of law and justice with regards to the deaths of numerous African-American males in this country among others, we as a society again are having a conversation about race, diversity and justice. While the Michael Brown shooting was divisive for some, although it shouldn’t have been, Eric Garner’s death and subsequent lack of indictment by the grand jury has galvanized waves of protestors across the country of all races and ethnicity. While Ferguson for a minority, produced, property damage and violence, the other protests have been no less angry but even more poignant through sit-ins, die-ins, blocked freeways during rush hour in Washington, DC or in the middle of the night in New York City and Los Angeles or Dallas.

Meanwhile on social media, Twitter in particular has exploded with hashtag conversations about racism and white privilege. When juxtaposed #Crimingwhilewhite and #AliveWhileBlack in addition to #Blacklivesmatter paint a stark and often depressing contrast of the existence of white privilege and the countervailing discrimination faced by black men and women and other minorities. So many of the posts highlight cases where on one hand merely being white represented safety or lack of prosecution while black participants for the same crime were prosecuted. On the other hand cases where unfair burdens of expectation, disbelief, and proof are often required for minorities.

While I have numerous personal examples, too many to name here, I’ll never forget my #alivewhileblack contribution which occurred the day after high school graduation. I was ecstatic about embarking on the next stage of my education and clothing store in Princeton, NJ where my grandparents had come to visit and see where their first generation grandson would be attending college. The notion that it actually occurred across the street from the university makes the following exchange with a white customer even more stunning.

“Congratulations, on your graduation, where are you going to college?” she asked excitedly.

“Princeton” I replied with a sense of accomplishment.

She laughed and responded, “No really where are you going?”

“Princeton” I replied again, after a pause and in disbelief.

“Oh” she replied with a blank stare.

These hashtag conversations are a personal and often, frustrating reminder of realities I have lived as an African-American male my entire life. As a pre-teen, the son of a Detroit father who had lived through the 1967 rebellion/riot(depends on who you ask) I received “the talk” about how to navigate through the streets. That talk had nothing to do with GPS-like directions but everything to do with arriving safely at my “destination” each day. It was a warning to be wary of wrong-doers, fellow citizens at night in particular in Detroit and in DC. Sadly, it also included a warning about law enforcement, which in the wrong circumstances could be just as or more deadly than some criminals. Basically, it included “Beware of cars with tinted windows”, sadly those twin dangers could come riding in cars that looked very similar.

It mattered not that I attended a private school, or an Ivy League university.(I’ve had police traffic profiling encounters near both institutions) It wouldn’t matter if I wore a suit or a hoodie (I’ve worn both and not been able to catch cabs at night.) This issue, which can be tracked back decades, isn’t based specifically on class or socio-economic status, ill-fated chance can be just one traffic stop away. The talk included the use of de-esecalating and non-threatening language. Ironically, things law enforcement officers are trained to do.

I am not anti-law enforcement. I have friends and family members who are police officers and believe the majority of them conduct themselves as they should, sacrificing for the safety of the public. However far too many, STILL, exert undue force, aggression and deadly force. I support marches and protests. However we need POLICY changes. Effective change in these cases must occur before the fact, in Federal, state and local police regulations, particularly with regards to the use of lethal force and the use of the officer’s weapons. Cameras can be helpful, so that we wouldn’t have doubt about what occurred, but it is about more than viewing the incident, as Eric Garner’s family has painfully discovered.

This won’t perfectly address every issue, some of these matters are issues of the heart to be honest, but it will greatly reduce the numbers of people who suffer at the hands of law enforcement run amok. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity in all of the marches and protests, true and lasting change must occur.

On any other day, I would be conciliatory, but today, I am angry. Angry that an issue that existed for my father and his father and his father, still exists for me. Angry that lives are still being lost. Angry that justice isn’t being served. Angry that the reality still exists it could happen to me. Angry most of all, that sadly one day in the near future, I will have to one day sit my yet unborn children down and give them that talk, the same one my father gave me.

Why Congress Should Address Silicon Valley’s Lack of Diversity

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The immigration debate has once again taken center stage on Capitol Hill following President Obama’s executive action. While Congress should engage and help find bipartisan solutions to the many facets of immigration reform, one easy place to start is an area of clear consensus – the need for more skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM. Increasing diversity and creating opportunities for qualified minorities should be a top focus of the debate.

Silicon Valley and its failures are rightly garnering increased scrutiny and attention. Many have noted the Valley’s advocacy on behalf of immigration reform to bolster the number of available tech workers. But while the efforts of firms like Google and Facebook to reform our nation’s broken immigration system are certainly laudable, these companies also have a large blind spot when it comes to filling out their workforces with diverse talent.

Even worse, the proportion of minority employees working in the tech divisions of those companies is even lower. This is despite the fact that minorities are graduating from educational programs at twice the rate that Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and others are hiring them.

In order to address this imbalance, DiverseTech, an organization that I co-founded, has committed itself to a campaign dedicated to promoting awareness of the need for increased diversity within the technology industry. Through collaborations with industry leaders, experts and key organizations within the field, we seek to increase the public’s awareness about the shortage of minority representation within the tech industry.

We cannot do this alone. For decades civil rights leaders in Congress have played a critical role in advocating for social justice reforms to improve the quality of opportunities available to minorities in our society. Whether through legislative action or working directly with constituents in their communities, Congressional leaders have a key role to play in leveling the playing field in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs nationwide.

This is crucial for several reasons. First, minorities cannot reap the full benefits of the tech revolution if they are stuck as consumers with no input on the development of these revolutionary products. Unemployment and poverty in black communities is one of our country’s most pervasive problems, and opening new avenues in sectors like the tech industry are vital for overcoming this ongoing issue.

Second, multiple studies have shown that companies with diverse workforces and leadership ranks outperform their competition. This is not just a matter of making minorities more competitive in the modern workforce, but our companies more innovative and successful. In order for our country to remain competitive in the 21st century economy, we need to take advantage of our entire workforce’s potential, not just certain subsets.

Both of these issues are of vital national interest, and by working with groups like DiverseTech and other partners who have made increasing diversity in Silicon Valley a top priority, Congress can make it clear that in the modern economy, diversity is not a luxury or nice-to-have but a must for tech companies with immense market power that want to sell their products and services to everyone – not just white men that make up the majority of their employment rolls. Google and other companies have committed themselves to ensuring that the tech revolution benefits all Americans, but minority workers depend on groups like ours and their elected representatives to hold these companies accountable.

We have just started to figure out solutions to this persistent problem. That means getting input from every party involved as we come up with the right answers. No issue of this magnitude will get solved without Congressional pressure and focus, and by engaging more in this debate Congress can help move the conversation forward in a productive and urgent manner.

Diversity: A Broad View

diversity1Much has been written about and is available about the lack of diversity within the tech field, particularly at  larger social media firms and product companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and others. Much has also been written about proposed causes for these diversity gaps, positing everything from systematic problems such as talent gaps and to structural problems such as human resource tactics and culture.

In the end the causes and solutions are both systemic and structural both short-term and long-term oriented. On the long term side, research has shown a digital divide among different demographics with regards to access to technology such as reliable internet and computing devices as well as with regards to use of such products, desktops and laptops vs. smartphones and tablets. These have broken out along racial and class lines with African-Americans, particularly those at lower income levels utilizing smartphone devices to access the internet while those with more affluence in some cases being white Americans, and other African-Americans utilizing the former. Access to technology among young people both within the home and within the school system impacts how we learn about technology and one’s interest in pursuing careers in it.

Women, while more prevalent in the workforce and the field, often struggle to obtain positions of leadership even when demonstrating successful professional track records. Often barriers they face are structural, systemic and cultural. Hispanic Americans represent the fastest growing minority within the country, yet struggle with entering the field as well. Surely solutions to these problems must occur in multiple places, including the home, our school systems and universities and within the corporations themselves.

Many organizations work hard every day advocating for more access for women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian Americans among others within the technology workforce. These organizations promote, train, teach and reach out to young and old alike. Organizations working together can help to further galvanize these existing efforts bringing more attention to the need and to the solutions to bring increased diversity to the technology industry. Additionally it will be important for organizations across these various segments to work collectively together comprehensively addressing STEM education issues, digital divide and access issues, discrimination across all fronts and training both as long term pipelining issues and short-term HR strategies.

A Short Life With An Eternal Impact

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“All you can take with you, is that which you’ve given away” -from It’s A Wonderful Life

After an emotional couple of weeks I felt compelled to update my previous blog about Jawhar. We were honored to be able to visit him once again, to celebrate his 19th birthday, a day that the doctors didn’t believe he would see. Surrounded by his family, friends and loved ones we were able to sing songs of encouragement as well as a rousing rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday song. Far more than that though, much time was spent in prayer for him, his mother and his family. You see that day wasn’t a good day for him health wise, indeed he wasn’t quite conscious during our visit.

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During these moments, many tears were shed and very few words were spoken as we all felt a range of expressions of emotions from concern and relief and healing for Jawhar, to comfort and peace for his family and friends. So powerful was this moment that a room full of 45 people fell completely silent for quite some time, even as prayers were being offered quietly.

Early the next morning, we learned Jawhar had passed and been granted relief from his suffering. Our initial thoughts and prayers turned to support for the family and wondering what we could offer them in this moment. As it turned out, our gift was more of what we had already given as the family, as a result of the love they felt from us, felt moved to request the funeral be held at our church, even though they were not members.

As one might expect the funeral service of course was heavy with emotion and sadness for the loss of a life that shined so brightly for so many at such an early age. Friends and family recalled the big goals and dreams of a young man whose musical talents led to the creation of his own record label and whose personality served as a source of inspiration. It was recalled to Jawhar’s credit that in the midst of the pain and seemingly cruel hand life had dealt him, he still saw fit to keep smiling and inspiring those around him. We experienced this first hand as he singlehandedly was able to bring us together as a choir with his friends and family, forging connections that will continue on. So impactful was his life that hundreds of his fellow students braved 40 degree weather on a Saturday night for two hours for a candlelight vigil to sing, dance, share tears, laughs and memories of his life.

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Jawhar led a life that positively influenced the lives of those around him, a life of giving. As God would have it, his greatest gift came after his death. At the conclusion of his funeral, an altar call was given for those who didn’t know Christ to have an opportunity to do so. As our choir sang, one person stepped forward, then a trio of young girls, then a couple more young people, then a few more, followed by a few more and on and on until 45 young people stood hugging and supporting each other offering their lives to God including his own family members to the great rejoicing and shouts of praise of the choir members and even his mother. Jawhar through his death, had encouraged others to receive the greatest gift, eternal life. I’ve been too many funerals and even sang at more than a few, but I have never seen anything like the outpouring we witnessed at this service.

After the songs had ended, and the family had departed, many of us sat, quietly in disbelief at what we had just witnessed. Words, as they were in the hospital the night of the birthday celebration, seemed wholly inadequate and unnecessary. Finally one member broke the silence and spoke to ther perfect symmetry of the situation saying ” You know, 45 choir members went to sing at the Washington Wizards game and then the hospital for Jawhar that day and 45 of his friends and family came to the altar for salvation today. ”

As we marveled at that reality, and the blessing that it was to play role in this entire string of events; we have all been thankful for Jawhar, the life he lived, the fact that our paths divinely crossed on Martin Luther King Day, that we were able to be included amongst those who felt his impact, and that we could offer some love and comfort to his friends and family. We realized in this moment that our lives and the lives of 45 other people would never be the same simply because of the positive life Jawhar lived and the willingness of a group of strangers to take a few minutes to sing songs of encouragement to someone in need. I will never forget Jawhar or his family. He coined a phrase which states, “You start dying when you stop dreaming.” Fortunately for those who loved him the most, he and his dreams will live forever through the impact on those of us around him.

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The #Jawhar45 receiving the gift of salvation at his funeral.

Honoring a Patriarch

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(My grandfather in his Detroit city bus driver uniform)

As Black History month begins this month, I began to think of those who have gone before and made great impacts. I was reminded though that there was no better place to reflect than on those I knew in my own family. I’m thankful then for a wonderful grandfather who helped make me who I am today.

My grandfather a man of inexhaustible work ethic would take on various jobs to support his family, realized the value of making a positive first impression for his would-be employers. As a result, regardless of his current income, he always practiced a thorough and meticulous regimen of grooming and military-esque attention to the details of his wardrobe. His shoes were always shined, his suits always “pressed” his shirts always starched, and his hair always cut and fingernails always maintained. He believed strongly that if one truly desired a particular employment position, his wardrobe and work ethic should reflect that fact. “Papa” as his grandchildren referred to him told me countless times growing up, “you should always look the part.” In other words, my attire should always reflect my academic or professional realities or aspirations and I should appear as if I fit-in to the desired environment.

This attitude also carried over to his work ethic. Due to his experiences with racism and negative stereotypes, particularly in the employment sector, he echoed a popular refrain of his day in the black community; “you have to be twice as good to be just as employed or hired, or promoted.” This was perhaps no more reflected for him than his efforts to provide for his family by bettering his own employment. In the 1930’s he first landed a job out of high school working at an automotive garage making $18 a week. His persistence however before the face of the then Vice President of Lincoln Motors, would land him a letter of recommendation for a coveted job working for the Ford Motor Company where he made what seemed like a baron-type salary of $5 dollars an hour or $200 per week.

Utilizing all of these attributes, my grandfather became only the second black bus driver to be hired by the city of Detroit where he faced less publicized, but equally as virulent racism in the operation of his duties. Through a relationship with former Michigan Congressman George Sadowski he was referred for the position, which at the time was also coveted and as an African-American, prestigious as most jobs were for blacks in those days were limited to the auto factories. Around the same time that soon-to-be one of Detroit’s most famous citizens Rosa Parks was being arrested for not riding in the back of the bus in Montgomery, my grandfather faced insults and white customers who refused to ride the bus when they saw that a black man was at the front of the bus, but driving it. He also had to endure going to work in an environment in which the white bus drivers would not even speak to him, save one driver whom he befriended and learned the ropes.

As was the custom in those days, he would begin his shift by boarding a bus already loaded with passengers, as the previous driver would disembark. Being prompt was a must for operating the downtown bus and he quickly learned to run his routes like clockwork to avoid costly delays. Early in career, he boarded the bus, wearing his well pressed uniform and while he was preparing to embark on the second leg of the route, a middle aged white lady, stood up, walked briskly up the aisle towards the front of the bus, demanding to get off. As she passed my grandfather she exclaimed angrily, “I will not ride on this bus as long as it is being driven by a nigger!

My grandfather would share with me later that while obviously bothered by such comments he realized it was the better part of valor to keep his peace and his job. Reminiscing about that incidence he joked on day, “if she wanted to get off and walk, I didn’t pay that any mind. When all was said and done I was driving and she was the one walking.” Rather than respond verbally in that situation, as others of those that would follow him did, he saw the practicality in keeping his job and being able to provide for his family.

He would learn from those experiences and went on to own and operate his cleaning business where his attention to detail and pride in well pressed clothing could be put to good use. He also would launch a real estate company which would he would continue to operate well into his 80s. Even through success that he achieved with the company, his penchant being dapper was never confused with being ostentatious. He would shun the opportunities to drive more luxurious cars such as a Cadillac, as was popular among his counterparts, not simply as a mater of frugality but also as a counter-culture entrepreneurial strategy. He would explain somewhat humorously, “If I drive my prospective clients around a Cadillac, they might be impressed or they might conclude that I’m doing so well that I don’t need their business.”

I’m honored to have sat at the feet of such a loving, caring, hardworking, God-fearing man who impacted so many in his life, he may be gone but he will never be forgotten.